Originally published in The Irish Times
Now and then I swim out too far, feeling the smallness of me amid the sometimes menacing expanse. Recently I found myself front-crawling into the very adult world of publishing politics, and the very definite pulse of my youth was both horrified and bolted by a current so strong I was afraid I might drown.
Teenagers are allowed a little hyperbole occasionally, but it really felt like that. I’m not even close to paddling again, and I find myself sleepless, prowling the garden at night.
I creep out, and pulled by the thrust of darkness, the calm of shadows, I become a tightrope walker, taut as a steel line, stepping lightly on our garden paths, mown to explore the cyclical eruption of various wildflowers. The front of the house can’t be all overgrown, you need to show that you do care and that you are “managing” your unruly wildness.
I stop at the ragwort, beam my torch and stare: the underworld is crawling out. The first player prowls out, stealthy as an eight-legged hawk on the hunt. The Harvestman. Night creeper, patrolling, waiting to pounce and puncture their unsuspecting prey.
They aren’t off the hook, though, as my bat detector starts beeping like a submarine, hissing and whooshing too as it detects even my quiet steps. That’s how I sound to the nocturnal wild world, a giant, slovenly thumping and stamping about the place. I am as visible as thunderous Apollo.
They are Leisler’s bats, and according to the detector reading (each bat species has a different sonar frequency and a particular output) are circling. Their tiny clicks are audible to the human ear if it’s very quiet and you’ve honed your satellites to listen. Kids tend to have much better hearing for bat listening. I always love informing them of their own little bat-detecting superpower.
I remember clearly my first “bat walk” at Castle Caldwell, pitch blackness faded me into nothingness and only for my mum’s hand in mine, I might have felt invisible. Surrounded by water (as is everywhere in Co Fermanagh) we watched, aided by a sudden parting of the clouds, as bats skimmed the surface of lower Lough Erne; boy racers disguised as silhouette birds.
I find a nice soft spot and lay down on my tummy, torch perched on the grass, angled up at the ragwort and yarrow and just wait. I’ve always had a particular love of much-maligned species, such as ragwort and bats. Both are incredible for nature.
Not having to wait long, the dancing nocturne has emerged. Ladybird larvae javelin up stems, ground beetles in their droves, erratic as dodgem cars, bee-striped cinnabar moth caterpillars sluggishly arch and move in the slowest of time. A magpie moth lands next, followed by yellow underwing and other smaller moths I can’t identify without trapping them.
So much life. On this night, I’m not going to linger as normal, letting my body make an imprint, allowing every molecule of stress sink into the ground. No, not tonight. Well, not on my own. I have human company tonight.
I hear the chatter of the rest of the family spilling out into the top garden. Everyone is up and out late. The sky is glitter clear and I pull myself up to join them, feeling the fizz of anticipation. Suddenly I hear ecstatic whoops. I rush faster. I fumble in the dark trying to open the gate. We have so many gates at our house, the norm in rural areas I’m told, but I don’t look up until I’m just in the right spot.
We are all lying in a row on the grass and I can feel the excitement as I finally focus on the sky. Incandescent cosmic fireworks, one after the other. There is so much sky above us and, as meteoroids become meteors, I feel the tension that we’ve all been under these past weeks seep into the soil. Just visible streaks alongside fireball gusts, this spectacle is caused by the comet Swift-Tuttle known as the Icy Parent of the Perseids.
I am breathless as they stream from the radiance of Perseus.
I don’t know how long we lie there, passing memories between each other here and there. Mum talking about the sky one summer she spent in Co Cork when she stayed at a seminary to rehearse for a musical called Peace Child and how they gathered in the city to protest against nuclear weapons in 1989, and the sky every night was full of shooting stars.
Parental teenage memories of doing exactly this, feeling the wideness of the world. Feeling simultaneously limitless and insignificant.
I won’t forget this, ever. We have never lived in a place with so much expanse, so little light pollution because we have the sea in front and the mountains at our backs. I have never known such outer peace; if only the inner would align.
I realise I’m shivering, and the damp of the grass has passed on to me. The air is cooling and the Perseid shower is slowing down for now. So we decide to go in for a while to the warmth of milk and our beds. We all share hugs as the excitement lulls into sleepiness.
I take my milk upstairs and pull my curtains back to let a little light in and just as I open the window to get some air, a party of oystercatchers start piping up from the shore. There’s hardly a car on the road now and I can hear the gentle swish of the waves. None of us gets back up, of course, but I awaken early with a jolt.
It’s happening a lot these days. Many causations, but one of them is my imminent AS level results. In Northern Ireland, these first-year results kind of determine how good your university application will look. One of my chosen universities requires a very early deadline in October, so I’ll have no other results to predict my final grades. I read some Beowulf to calm my nerves – the Seamus Heaney translation – and try and think of other things.
Other things will and do calm the storm and I emerge now, a little more rested (coming off social media will do that to the internally hyperactive autistic brain) and a lot less stressed.
The results are now in and I can just say that my university dreams are alive and well. I am now slipping below the radar once again, binoculars in hand, with many miles to walk and the last days of the summer holidays to enjoy.